Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Audio Education

by Elizabeth

I spend a pretty decent chunk of time each summer on the road, but this summer has been ridiculous. In addition to my regular Dallas to Birmingham to North Carolina to D.C. swing, I repeated the return journey thanks to the need to retrieve my no-longer-damaged car. In between my Eastward treks, the kids and I, along with my mother-in-law, drove from Texas to Phoenix a couple of weeks ago. And earlier this summer I drove back and forth to Boy Scout camp three times, a total of a dozen-plus hours in the car. Despite the fact that I never hit the west coast, I feel it's reasonable to argue that I drove the breadth of the country this summer. That's a lot of time on my heiny.

What was great about it, though, was the books. Since I was behind the wheel a good seventy-five percent of the time on the road, it would be scary and cop-baiting to read with my eyes. Nope: what I did, and the kids and my mother and mother-in-law with me, was listen. We got through the first Harry Potter as far as Halloween, and planned to savor the rest on the Arizona trip, only to discover after my fast dash into the library I'd instead grabbed The Chamber of Secrets . (And whew! thank goodness for links, huh? Because otherwise how would you ever find anything by the obscure J.K. Rowling?) So for two days on I-10, we listened wide-eyed as Dobby as Harry and his pals survived their second year at school. Earlier we'd introduced Grandma to How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell, which has become a summer favorite. (Last year I think we heard it three times!) I enjoyed The Divorce Party by Laura Dave as I trekked to Camp Constantin, and between Washington and Asheville I relished my first "reading" of Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright.

Until about three years ago, I'd never done books on tape. (Okay, it's a CD player, yeah, yeah, yeah; old words die hard.) Joan is probably the reason I even considered them. I think it was by our second meeting she'd waxed euphorically of their merits, and though I still prefer my eyes to my ears, I have to agree: Audio books rock.

A few summers ago, as I slid that first CD into my player and held my breath hoping it wouldn't put me to sleep, I had no idea how much they would help my writing. That's what has really struck me this summer in particular over the hours and miles. Listening has taught me about craft in new ways to reading; hearing the books, hearing the words unfold, I am struck by the craft and craftiness with which these authors write. Some of the books I've read in hard copy, and some were fresh reads. I don't know what it is about listening as opposed to seeing, but I've been amazed at what I've learned about pacing and suspense, about timing and details, about structure and the senses. Oh, yes! the senses! Looking at some of my earlier work, I can see that I haven't always incorporated those five magical sensations into my writing as well as I could. Hearing it in others' works has informed me how much richer they make a story. In some cases, make the story.

I have one last big push in the car, a fourteen hour day, and I have Lois Lowry's remarkable Number the Stars at the ready for the last stretch to home. After that, I hope to abandon the car for as long as possible. Instead of grabbing the steering wheel, I hope to grab a big fat novel, and then another, and another. Oh, and my pen as well. In both cases, I think my audio experiences this summer will enhance what I get out and put down. And next summer, when I hit the road again--and I will--my CD player will be ready, my mind open, and once again the road will hum with the sound of words reading me along my journey.


  1. I'm so happy you've finally discovered the joy of listening! Here are a few of my favorite audio books:

    RIGHT HO, JEEVES by P.G. Wodehouse (don't crash the car or fall off the treadmill!)

    RETURN OF THE NATIVE by Thomas Hardy (Alan Rickman reads it--is there a better voice on the planet?)

    HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY by Richard Llewellyn (A Welsh mining family's troubles-gorgeous narration)

    I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith (can you beat a first line like this: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.")


  2. I have sometimes started listening to a book on CD because I needed to read it and wasn't easily drawn into the print version. Once I have my bearings from the CD -- from having voices for characters, for instance -- it's easier to read a difficult book on the page.

  3. This summer (and previous ones) I downloaded the audio versions of my sons' required summer readings for AP English. Some titles they read just fine; others they struggled with. As soon as I heard, "Mom, I can't get through this," I was ready at the computers and, through iTunes, downloaded the audio versions of their books so they could listen as they read along.


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